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Mid-Victorian Diet, How Far Have We Come?

By William Lagakos, Ph.D., Writer
November 21, 2014
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Review of: An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part one: public health lessons from the mid-Victorian working class diet (Clayton and Rowbotham, 2014)

Context: Early Victorian era was plagued with starvation; this was corrected, technically, during the late Victorian era, but at what cost?

Dietary changes in the late 19th century in Britain reduced malnutrition and starvation-induced morbidity and mortality, but were far from optimal.

Refined flour, fresh and tinned meat, canned fruit preserved in heavy syrups, and evaporated milk became readily available to the public. In turn, sugar consumption increased exponentially.

Reduced starvation? The population at large became weaker and frailer, their teeth rotted, albeit they were less starved.

Previously, their diet included healthier foods like onions, cherries and apples, bones, dripping, offal, and meat scraps. The study authors inevitably concluded the malnourishment abated because the food got cheaper (less starvation), not healthier.

Another factor in reduced starvation was the fact that physical activity markedly declined in this period, so people simply needed fewer calories to survive. Combine that with sugar-laden confectionaries and otherwise junk food and you have a recipe for disaster.

In other words, they went from a Paleo-template to a Western diet in just a few years. The nutrient density, fibre, potassium, and omega-3 fatty acids were diluted with processed grains and refined flour. And so a sad state of health was born: diets low in fresh fruits and veggies, and rich in high glycemic index foods like potato products, breakfast cereals, confectioneries, and refined baked foods. And low physical activity. They call it “Type B Malnutrition.” The cause? Sedentary lifestyle and cheap junk food… in other words, “not Paleo.”

History has repeated itself. Now that we are in a state where healthy food prices are comparable to junk food, we should be striving to get back to our dietary roots. A diet rich in whole foods, more similar to an early Victorian or otherwise Paleo template. That is a necessary prerequisite to curb the rising rate of non-communicable diseases. “It’s too expensive” is no longer a valid excuse.

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